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Calcutta Notebook

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Those who have looked with some interest at the way the parliamentary or assembly polls are conducted in India can well understand that victory in these polls depends on a number of factors including the general mood of the electorate and the pitch of the campaign (in which money power plays significant roles). The mood of the electorate is on the other hand conditioned by various national, regional and local considerations. It is of course true that intimidation, forced and false voting, direct capture of booths, incapacity and worthlessness of the forces supposed to ensure free and fair polls—all play their partsin specific times and places. But it is no less true that success of such unfair means is necessarily uneven and sometimes they may not succeed at all or even boomerang.

How intimidation, aided by polling personnel, can succeed in making even a hostile community to vote for the ruling party is illustrated by Irfan Engineer’s article ‘Why Muslims Vote for the BJP’ (Frontier, May 11-17). What Engineer has described is, however, an extreme case, but extreme examples afford insights, and they suggest that intimidation can be successful in specific times and places, although it does not entirely explain the victory of a party in the whole of a state. An example regarding West Bengal may be given to explain this point. In the assembly polls of 1972, there was large-scale rigging, and in many cases, even when voters were allowed into the polling booths, they were forced at gun point to vote in favour of the Congress and the policemen on duty remained silent spectators or even collaborated with the ruling party. In some pockets of the state, however, this did not succeed, and the CPI(M) and its allies managed to win 20-25 seats.

Again, it is true that there was in the country an Indira wave following Indira Gandhi's victory in the Bangladesh war, and the parliamentary left parties had also contributed, consciously or unconsciously, to this wave. The Congress possibly would have gained a majority in the 294-member assembly by riding on that wave. But such a massive victory on its part was inconceivable without massive rigging. It is also curious that the CPI(M) could offer no resistance to the process of rigging. In the 1977 parliamentary polls too there were desperate attempts by musclemen owing allegiance to the Indira Gandhi-Siddhartha Ray combine to rig the poll process, but by then the earlier strong pro-Indira wave had turned into a stronger anti-Indira wave owing to a number of factors; the disillusionment with the Garibi Hatao programme, exposure of the license scandal, the Maruti scandal and the Nagarwala scandal, the mass movement led by Jayprakash Narayan and finally the Emergency. The forces of rigging became utterly demoralized in the face of the strong popular wave, and in some places, they were beaten back by the opposition. In quite a number of places, the forces employed for rigging quickly understood the changed mood of the electorate and switched sides. It shows that the mood of the people is important in deciding the outcome of polls and concurrently the extent of success of rigging.

Ever since 1987, there have surfaced many allegations of intimidations and false voting against the CPI(M), and the accusers were principally the Congress and then the Trinamul Congress. Where various Naxalite organizations participated in elections, they too complained of such malpractices. These allegations were not baseless, but it is true that there was no strong resistance to these practices, because although the hold of the CPI(M) on the people was slowly declining, there was no general counter-wave. In the 2003 three-tier ponchayet polls, more than one-third of the seats went uncontested.

The counter-wave got momentum in 2007-08, and the opposition forces, mainly the TMC, made significant headways in the panchoyet polls. The events of Singur and Nandigram definitely aided the process. This process got further spurt and in 2009, the TMC-Congress combine won a majority of the seats in West Bengal in the Lok Sabha polls. This trend reached its peak in the 2011 assembly polls. There was no allegation in general that elections had been rigged by the TMC or the INC.

But the trend began to decline ever since then. Shameful roles of the TMC about violence against women (e.g. Park Street and Kamduni), various scams and scandals, e.g. Saradah and TET, senseless and boastful talks and promises by the chief minister and her colleagues, reports of massive corruption and nepotism—all these contributed to the dwindling image of the TMC and its chief minister. Hence this outfit resorted to massive violence at the panchoyet polls of 2013 and succeeded. In the recently concluded parliamentary polls, this phenomenon has been repeated in a more blatant manner. There are numerous instances, but one may be given here. A TMC leader, who is the chief accused in a murder case but has not been arrested owing to the cowardice of the DG (Police) declared, as reported by the largest circulating daily in the country, just before the polls that they would conduct the polls as smoothly as the CPI(M) had done earlier, regardless of the number of observers employed by the Election Commission. After the polls, the same TMC chieftain claimed boastfully that the medicine prescribed by the Election Commission would not apply to him. Reports of an MLA forcibly entering a booth and driving out the polling personnel and a group of TMC loyalists using firearms against a party of some 200 men and women also show how brazen the ruling party could be. Figures about absurd voting rates in favour of the TMC in many booths, as reported in the dailies, also corroborate the evidence of large-scale malpractices. Finally, there is the open admission of failure by the Election Commission.

Why couldn't all these be resisted? The answer perhaps lies in the fact that with the CPI(M) not having enough bones and muscles, and the declining image of the TMC and Mamata Banerjee yet to be turned into a general wave of discontent, the TMC could achieve considerable success in this regard. But certainly this will not last long.

Frontier
Vol. 46, No. 50, Jun 22 - 28, 2014